Cannelloni con gli Asparagi

Cannelloni with Asparagus and Ham

No Stuffed pasta could be more elegant, none tastier, none more simple to assemble than cannelloni Yet there is none whose execution is customarily so dreary. The error that most cooks make with cannelloni is that they take the stuffing, shape it like a sausage, and wrap layers of pasta around it. Thus cannelloni turn out to be dull, thick casings for a clumsy lump trapped in their center.

The correct method is not more difficult to carry out, but it yields incomparably finer results. The pasta is laid flat and the stuffing mixture, however it may be composed, is spread thinly over the entire surface. Then the pasta is rolled up loosely, like a jelly roll, so that each layer of pasta is filmily bound to the next by no more savory stuffing than is absolutely necessary.

Of the many stuffings for cannelloni I have experimented with, this one with asparagus and ham has never failed to please.

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Ingredients

  • 2 pounds asparagus
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup water
  • Salt
  • 6 ounces boiled unsmoked ham

For the béchamel

  • 3 cups milk
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 4½ tablespoons flour
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano (Parmesan)
  • â…› teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • Homemade pasta dough made with 2 large eggs and about 1½ cups unbleached flour, as described

Method

  1. Trim 1 inch or more off the butt ends of the asparagus, leaving only the moist, tender part of the stalk. Pare away the tough green skin from the base of the spear to the end of the stalk. Remove any tiny leaves sprouting below the base of the tip. Cut the trimmed asparagus into 2-inch lengths and wash in cold water.
  2. Choose a lidded, shallow pan large enough to accommodate all the asparagus. Put in 4 tablespoons of the butter, the water, a little salt, and the asparagus. Cover and turn on the heat to medium. Cook until the asparagus is tender, but firm. If, when the asparagus is done, there is still liquid in the pan, uncover, raise the heat to high, and boil away the liquid while browning the asparagus lightly.
  3. Cut up the ham and chop it in a food processor, but take care not to chop it too fine. Add the asparagus to the processor bowl and run the processor very briefly once or twice. The asparagus should be cut up into small pieces, but not blended to a creamy consistency.
  4. Make the béchamel: Heat the milk over low heat until it forms a ring of pearly bubbles, but do not let it break into a boil. While the milk is being heated, melt the butter in a separate pan over low heat. When the butter melts, add the flour, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. When the flour has been wholly amalgamated with the butter, but before it becomes colored, remove from the heat. Add 2 tablespoons of milk at a time to the flour and butter mixture, stirring steadily and thoroughly. Add 2 more tablespoons of milk when the first 2 have been incorporated smoothly and evenly into the butter and flour. Stir and repeat the operation until you have put in 8 tablespoons of milk. At this point you can add the milk ½ cup at a time, always stirring steadily to obtain a homogeneous mixture. When all the milk has been worked in, place the pan over low heat, add the pinch of salt, and stir without interruption until the béchamel is as dense as a thick cream.
  5. Put the chopped asparagus and ham in a bowl, add half the béchamel, ⅔ cup of the grated cheese, and the nutmeg. Mix well.
  6. Knead the dough for the pasta and thin it out, stopping at the next to last setting on the machine, as described.
  7. Cut the pasta strips into 5- to 6-inch-long rectangles, leaving them as wide as they come from the machine. Parboil them, rinse them, and spread on dry cloth towels, following the instructions in the recipe for lasagne.
  8. Turn on the oven to 450°.
  9. Choose a baking pan large enough (about 10 by 12 inches) to contain all the cannelloni snugly in a single layer. Smear the bottom generously with butter.
  10. Spread 1 tablespoon of béchamel on a plate. Place a rectangle of pasta over the béchamel, rotating it lightly so that its underside becomes coated. Over the pasta’s top side spread about 1½ tablespoons of the asparagus mixture, thinning it evenly, but stopping just short of the edge of the pasta.
  11. Roll up the pasta softly, jelly-roll fashion, to form a cannellone.
  12. Place the cannellone in the pan, with the overlapping edge facing down. Repeat the operation, laying the cannelloni snugly side to side, until all the cannelloni are done. From time to time, smear more béchamel over the bottom of the plate, as necessary, but take care not to use up all the béchamel.
  13. When all the cannelloni are in the pan, spread the remaining béchamel over them, forcing some of the sauce into the spaces between the cannelloni.
  14. Sprinkle with the remaining â…“ cup of grated cheese and dot with the leftover 2 tablespoons of butter. Place the pan in the uppermost level of the preheated oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until a golden brown crust forms on top. Allow to settle for 5 to 8 minutes before serving. To serve, do not cut into the cannelloni, but loosen them, one from the other, with a spatula.

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